Landlords looking to stay on the right side of the law have limited options when it comes to trying to get their rent-stabilized tenants out, and restrictions could get tighter if a bill being introduced today by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito gets passed. The bill would make it illegal for landlords to offer a tenant a buyout after the tenant has indicated he or she is not interested.

Rent-stabilized apartments account for nearly half of New York's rental housing (PDF), and the designation comes with a lot of protections. Landlords are required to offer rent-stabilized tenants first dibs on renewing their leases, and can only raise the rent a percentage set by the Rent Guidelines Board—unless the apartments become vacant.

Vacant apartments in rent-stabilized buildings can automatically have their rent increased 20 percent, plus a percentage of the cost of renovations, which the landlord doesn't have to prove unless challenged by a future tenant (PDF). And if the rent goes above $2,500 on a vacant unit, the apartment loses its rent regulation.

This ability to turn a rent-stabilized apartment into a market-rate one by getting the tenants out incentivizes harassment. But for landlords who don't want to resort to sawing holes in the floors of their own buildings, or changing the locks, or cutting off the heat and hot water—all already illegal—the main tools available to rid themselves of rent-regulated tenants are a) proving that a tenant is somehow breaking their lease and b) buyouts.

There are other tricks of the trade, like failing to cash rent checks to create the appearance of a pattern of non-payment, but as a rent-stabilized tenant with a landlord aggressively trying to remove the occupants of my building, I can report that buyout offers are offered as a sort of default response to communication from us regulated tenants. For instance, when the company Newcastle Realty Services bought my building last spring and I called the new property manager to complain about cascading leaks in the apartments on my side of the building, and about the company's plan to take all the satellite dishes off the roof, the response I got was a buyout offer. And when my neighbor went a month without getting a copy of his new lease and he finally went to the Midtown office to sort it out, he got offered a buyout, too. (To Newcastle's credit, I haven't gotten a buyout offer since I said I wasn't interested, but I suspect that has a lot to do with the prickliness of my calls and emails.)

The new bill before the City Council would ban offering a buyout to a tenant who has indicated verbally or in writing that he or she is not interested.

The Rent Stabilization Association, a landlord lobbying group, is not pleased. A spokesman said that the ability to offer tenants thousands of dollars to move is a free speech issue.

"I think there’s a real issue here in terms of First Amendment, free speech rights," said Frank Ricci, noting that a similar rule restricting landlord-tenant communication in San Francisco was struck down by a California court for that reason. A battle over a new set of buyout regulations is playing out there now.

A New York City Council spokeswoman said the bill being introduced today is legally airtight.

Ricci also noted that people sometimes change their minds.

"If someone says, on January 1st, 'Don't bother me. I don’t want to be bought out,' I don't think there's any harm in an owner three months or six months later saying, 'By the way, have you changed your mind?'" he said. "Is that harassment?"

A law passed last year increased the maximum penalties for landlords found to have harassed their tenants, from $5,000 to $10,000, and prompted the city to start listing those building owners on a website maintained by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (PDF pop-up). But despite thousands of "known cases" of harassment reported to the city, since October, 2013, only 30 landlords have been fined.